While on a recent weekend trip to Vienna with my boyfriend Noah, our friend Lisa turned to me and asked, “Can I be a drag queen?”
I didn’t understand the question. “You can be a drag king,” I said, referring to women who dress as men. “No. I want to be a drag queen,” she said. “I want to dress up like drag queens do.”
This got me thinking about what doing drag means, and what it has evolved to mean. There’s the obvious meaning: men who dress as women for the purpose of entertaining us. Or women who dress as men. But Lisa’s question got me thinking about drag queens like the Boulet Brothers who, while taking on feminine characteristics, aren’t so much dressing as women but dressing as monstrous visions and outrageous characters, challenging our very ideas of femininity and masculinity.
The idea of drag has evolved.
So maybe the answer to Lisa’s question is, “Yes, you can do whatever you want. That’s what dressing in drag means. Redefining yourself — your gender, sexuality, your character — into something new. Something outrageous and beautiful and monstrous. Anything you want to be.”
The gay community lives in a world of costumes. Masculinity and femininity, tops and bottoms, bears and twinks. All of these are postures — attributes we take on — and none of them are real. The very act of a man or woman dressing up in leather, or posturing into roles of dominance and submission, is what drag is all about, too.
Men in the leather community may not like the comparison of their scene to drag queens, but they’re both based on ideas of what it means to be a man and what it means to be masculine — concepts that are made up and have nothing to do with true masculinity.
While in Berlin I met my friend Dan Saniski, a member of The Real Housewives of Neukolln, a Berlin-based drag artist collective. We met for a coffee at Happy Baristas in Friedrichshain, and I asked him about the significance of his drag name, The Babadouche.
“I’ve been obsessed with horror and monsters ever since I was a little kid, and I was raised in a culture where homosexuality was considered monstrous,” he tells me. “I mean, if society says I’m a monster and I like monsters, why not combine these two into a drag character? The Babadouche is about learning to like and take a stand for myself. I’m combining my love of horror, camp aesthetics, dark dance music and drag, and I’m working my way through that darkness by literally wearing it and saying, ‘Maybe I’m a monster! Maybe you are too! Who cares? Lets dance!'”
We walked through Friedrichshain, the Berlin sky dark and cloudy, and sat on a bench in Boxhagener Platz. Sitting amongst the fall colored leaves and dark sky, I couldn’t help but notice the people who moved around us: diverse, young and full of this amazing vitality. Berlin is a culture and community that celebrates the kind of drag and sexual freedom Dan and I had been discussing.
“The longer I’ve been living in Berlin the more I’ve started to question my understanding of what it means to be a man,” he says. “If the appearance of being butch is the only measure of sexual currency, then everyone becomes afraid, policing their own gender presentation. Once you abandon that pursuit and stop policing yourself, you can just let loose.”
We walked to Balaram, a vegan ice cream parlor, where I got the “Crazy Peanut.” (Seriously, if you’re in Berlin and they’re open, get the Crazy Peanut.)
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of the roles we choose, and how we define who we are based on our sexual preferences and our physical appearance,” I say. “It all just feels super limiting. I think if we can get beyond these labels, we can begin to experience ourselves and each other in bigger ways. Not just sexually, but as humans.”
“We are all performing ourselves and our gender all the time, but drag forces you to do it on purpose, rather than by accident or habit,” Dan says to me. “In Berlin there’s this sexual script that people follow, a choreographed dance. It’s entirely possible to have a sexual experience with dozens of people in the same day here that are basically routine. Thanks to drag, I try not to make assumptions about people’s roles. What do you want to be today? Daddy, pig, puppy, top? Whatever. It can all work and be fun, but we should take the time to consciously choose. If I sometimes choose to present as a man and sometimes as a woman, doesn’t that also mean that I can present different sexual roles as well? If it’s all drag and all theater, then let’s take it that last step and do it on purpose.”
“Telling a guy you do drag is the first big no-no when you meet someone,” he tells me. “I’ve been told many times, ‘Sorry, it’s just not what I’m into.’ I think when you do drag everyone automatically assumes you’re a feminine bottom. People have these assumptions that because I dress up like a clown I have lost all my masculinity, and because of that I’ve lost people’s respect on a sexual level. They can’t see beyond the makeup I wear and can only identify me as that — even when my dick is inside them.”
Meatball’s look is brilliant — a mix of femme, butch, clown, monster and over-the-top housewife. I ask whether in crafting his look he set out to challenge the varying stereotypes surrounding drag and masculinity.
“My drag persona is everything I was not allowed to be growing up,” he says. “I wasn’t allowed to be too femme; I was told to butch it up. I was told to change my voice. I was told to show less excitement. Meatball is just all those things I was told not to be, pushed to the extreme. I never set out to challenge any construct of drag. Sometimes I have my chest hair out, and sometimes I like to cover it up. I always set out to entertain the audience first and worry about my appearance second. That’s why they call me the Trash Queen of Los Angeles. lot of conventional queens look down on me for my choices and think there’s a lot I need to change. I can’t let that weigh on me. They’re just stuck in their ways.”
I discussed many of these same issues with Rify Royalty, a New York City-based performer who combines masculinity and femininity in his work.
“Gay culture can be quite heteronormative,” he says, “so it’s no surprise that we make assumptions about people’s sexual roles based on their presentation. There is this desire for masculinity in gay culture. We’re obsessed with the idea. That idea, however, is toxic; it’s rooted in misogyny. Looking down upon anything potentially feminine is misogynistic. Drag has taught me to rethink how I view my and others’ sexual identities.”
I, too, witness this toxic masculinity on a regular basis, listening to guys talk down about anyone who doesn’t live up to their ideal of masculinity, who dismiss other queer men as ‘less than’ for performing in drag and who refuse to acknowledge the fight for basic rights that currently embroils our trans brothers and sisters. There is this desperate desire in our community to appear “normal,” which most often equates to “straight-acting” and masculine.
These ideas of what is normal, of what is masculine, of what is “acceptable” behavior are rooted in a long history of homophobia and living in the closet, of trying to hide who we are and of fighting for acceptance in a heteronormative world.
But what excites me about the drag world, and about the queer world, is that it seems to be saying fuck you to that need for validation. Why do we have to appear or act straight? Why do we have to buy into this heteronormative idea of who we are and how we should behave?
Why do they get to decide who we are?
“When I started doing drag more professionally, I made a conscious effort to push the envelope a bit more,” Rify Royalty says to me. “I incorporated my go-go boy looks with my drag looks. I wore a jock strap, heels, makeup. I wanted to prove to gay men that you could be masculine-presenting but also be a total queen, and both could be sexy. Gay men can often get stuck on these ides they’ve created for themselves. It doesn’t say on your birth certificate that you’re a top or a bottom. It’s a personal choice.
“We need to be better about how we view others in our community, to be more open-minded and stop being so presumptuous about others,” he continues. “Don’t assume because someone goes to the gym and is bigger in size than you that he should automatically be a top, and don’t assume because someone wears makeup, that makes them a bottom.”
L.A.-based performer Tito Soto is another who doesn’t fall easily into any one category. He isn’t necessarily “drag,” and he isn’t necessarily masculine or feminine. Instead he challenges our ideas about all of these things, rising above them to create his own aesthetic.
“I grew up in Puerto Rico, which has a really Catholic and closed-minded culture,” he says. “I can’t tell you how much shit-talking has come back from people at home discovering what I do nowadays. People assumed I had lost my mind and was going down the deep end because I was performing or wearing crazy outfits and showing skin. I had to remind myself to ignore all of that. I just wanted to follow a path that would lead me to happiness, and following the status quo was not going to be it. All my life, up until 18 or 19, I was living for other people and what they expected me to be. As a performer I realized I could share my story and feelings and impact people in a positive way. I feel like I’m challenging societal norms, and it feels great.”
We live in a society that is struggling to find its identity. There are clashes between liberals and conservatives, those who live in “Trump’s America” and those of us who don’t. We are struggling to reimagine what it means to be American, what it means to be queer, what our obligations are to society and to ourselves.
There’s real courage in breaking free from those constraints, and we should see drag queens and gender-fluid individuals for what they really are: pioneers. They stand on the forefront of where we as a culture are headed.
“Most people assume I’m a total bottom,” Tito says to me. “Perhaps because I perform and act super gay onstage, or maybe it’s because I’m short and lively, or both. I’m not sure. I like what I like, and nobody can force me into a label like that. My persona is just an exaggeration of who I am on a daily basis. What I enjoy doing is juxtaposing the feminine traits in my spirit with a look that embraces masculinity and faggotry. Sure, RuPaul says “You’re born naked and the rest is drag,” but there is no wig or heel in my wardrobe, though there is lots of sparkle.”
During a text conversation with Dan “The Babdouche,” he made an offhanded comment: “Now we just have to get you into drag.” I wanted to write back that it would never happen, but I stopped myself. Why did I want to say that? Why was I suddenly so against the idea? What did I think it would say about me? Did I believe it would make me less masculine? Was I worried what people might think about me?
The idea of being in drag — when it came to myself — felt suddenly, inherently wrong. And that’s OK. I’m not saying everyone should go dress up in drag, but it did make me think: “Why am I so against this? What does that say about me?”
So instead I wrote back to Dan, “Fine. One day.”
As human beings we are all super complex. We are each these vast, unrealized universes of potential. I want to explore all the ways I, as a man, get to express myself. I don’t want to be limited by any one else’s ideas of what or how I should be. Even when those ideas are my own.
Writing this piece has really brought this idea into stark relief for me: exploring our identity, our sexuality and our relationships to each other is something we should celebrate, something we should fight for and something we should hold up as courageous and worthy.
So, fine. I will let Dan dress me in drag. I will be open to exploring all the sides of who I am. Even when they scare me, and even when they challenge the identity I have spent my whole life creating.
Featured image of Tito Soto by Jeremy Lucido